An American volunteer who builds a school in Haiti today may help create global goodwill for tomorrow, according to a study by Washington University in St. Louis researchers.
The study, “Perceived Impacts of International Service on Volunteers: Interim Results from a Quasi-Experimental Study,” supported by the Ford Foundation and released this past summer, suggests that even a few weeks of international volunteer service may reap lasting benefits.
International volunteer service is growing worldwide, but there is little substantive research about its impact. According to Amanda Moore McBride, PhD, assistant professor at the Brown School. the School’s Center for Social Development is leading research in this area and is the first organization to accomplish this kind of rigorous quasi-experimental work on the topic.
“Because we partner with the Brookings Initiative on International Volunteering and Service, the research has already had direct influence on policy,” McBride says. “Our research informed the 2009 Edward M. Kennedy Serve American Act and the proposed 2010 Sargent Shriver International Service Act.”
Volunteering’s legacy is in relationships
The WUSTL study sought to determine the effects of international service on volunteers in four areas: international awareness, intercultural relations, international social capital and international career intentions. The study demonstrated benefits in all categories except intercultural relations.
An examination of international social capital — the relationship between volunteers and people in the host countries — revealed numerous ways in which these connections flourish long after the volunteer period is over. These connections include volunteers sending money back to host countries, lobbying for policy changes, and linking people and organizations to resources.
“The impact of the experience is not just for the volunteers but perhaps, most importantly, for the host countries as well,” McBride says. “Even beyond the international service experience, those human connections transcend time and space, creating a foundation for global development.”
A grant from a joint academic venture capital fund sponsored by the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and WUSTL is supporting a longitudinal follow-up with the volunteers and analysis of host country data, which will better gauge the impact of international service over time.
The grant also supported a June 23 policy forum on the topic, co-sponsored by Global Economy and Development at Brookings and the Center for Social Development. U.S. Ambassador Elizabeth Frawley Bagley, special representative for global partnerships in the office of the Secretary of State, delivered the keynote address. Washington University Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton also spoke at the forum.
McBride, research director of the Center for Social Development and director of WUSTL’s Richard A. Gephardt Institute for Public Service, teaches courses on social justice, program evaluation and social work practice with organizations and communities.